Bwindi Impenetrable Forest


August 27th - 29th, 2016

We reached Bwindi Lodge in the early afternoon. It was another gorgeous lodge nestled along the hill side right next to the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park, close enough apparently that sometimes gorillas come up right to the lodge.

Bwindi Community Hospital
One optional afternoon activity was a visit to the Bwindi Community Hospital which I decided to join. This was really fascinating. We were shown around by an American woman who works here for one of the charities supporting the hospital. The hospital focuses a lot on family planning, women's health issues and education. They are successfully trying to persuade women to come to the hospital to give birth, rather than staying in their villages.

One interesting aspect we learned was that the hospital only has resources to provide the medical care but no other assistance. This means that people who have to stay in hospital have to bring a family member or friend with them, who cooks them food and stays with them the entire time. And all the family members sleep on mats on the floor between the hospital beds at night.   

The hospital was founded in 2003 by an American doctor and his wife (Scott and Carol Kellerman), who visited this area as tourists. It started out as an ambulant clinic in a tent under a tree and has since grown to 112 beds and a staff of 120. But even today it is entirely funded by donations. They do not receive any financial support from the government. If you would like to support the amazing work they are doing, here is the link to the donation page for the Bwindi Community Hospital.

Gorilla Tracking
Today finally was the big day of gorilla tracking. This was the reason we came here. We drove to the park ranger station where we were put into groups of eight. And after some detailed briefing from the head guide we got back into the cars and our group drove another 30 minutes to start of the hike. Each of us got their own porter and we started hiking uphill. For the the first hour the hike took us through farmland and a couple of villages, where we were greeted by loud shouts of 'Hello' and waves from all the children.

Bwindi Impenetrable Forest was made a National Park in 1991 and it became a Unesco World Heritage site in 1994. It contains just under half of the world's remaining mountain gorilla population. Once we entered the forest, the trails pretty much ended, and we had to make our way through steep and thick bushes. The vegetation is incredible thick and it was fairly tough going. I was glad to have brought my hiking poles.

Less than an hour inside the park our anticipation and excitement started to rise when we met up with the team of advanced trackers, who had been out there since early morning tracking the group for us. We had to be very quiet as we now knew the gorillas where near. We first saw some black fur outlines between the grass. Our tracker walked us towards them, cutting down the high grass with machetes and suddenly we were standing right in front of the whole group which was only a few meters away from us in a small clearing.

There was one silverback, several females, a few juveniles and three babies aged 4, 6 and 12 months. While the adults and juveniles tried to rest and sleep, the babies were very active, climbing on top of the others and generally pestering everyone. They were absolutely hilarious. I made this short movie of the gorillas babies:

We spent an hour with the group just observing them. Seeing these amazing animals this close in their natural habitat was one of the most moving and exciting things I have ever experienced. This was an incredible privilege and the absolute highlight of the trip, if not one of the highlights of my life.

The rangers and other people always stressed to us how important tourism is to the conservation efforts here. Without the money brought in by tourists, they would not be able to conserve the park and the apes. The park fees here in Bwindi are USD 600 per person and they get around 20,000 visitors per year. The money is not only used to pay the rangers and trackers, but also benefits the communities living around the forest. So people realize they can benefit much more from protecting the gorillas than poaching them. And these efforts have been very successful. At the worst point in the 1980s the total population of gorillas reached a very critical number of about 300. They have now recovered to almost 1000 individuals, about 400 here in Bwindi and over 500 in Virunga.

Batwa Pygmies
Back at the lodge, we had a dance performance by a group of Batwa people (who are also known as the Batwa Pygmies). These were incredibly beautiful and striking looking people:

Their fire making demonstration and particularly their dancing was a lot of fun and very energetic. Some of the women even kept dancing while breastfeeding their babies. Here is a short video of the performance:

Unfortunately, the story of the Batwa people also represents the terrible and sad dark side of the otherwise laudable efforts to save the mountain gorillas from extinction. The Batwa used to live inside the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. They were hunter-gatherers living off the forest, and are believed to be the oldest inhabitants of the African Great Lakes region. While they never hunted the great apes directly, their snares and traps still killed a lot of the gorillas. In 1992 when Bwindi was made a National Park they were evicted from their ancestral homes and were forbidden to enter the forest again. But they never received any new land to settle on or any other form of compensation. To this day they are the poorest and most marginalized group of people in Uganda. These dance performances for tourists are one small way to provide some income and allow their children to go to school. There are a number of charities (such as the Kellerman Foundation)working with the Batwa to provide education and health care support.

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